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The Path

The Education of a Filmmaker: Rick Famuyiwa's Odyssey From Film Student to Sundance and Beyond

March 23, 1997|DAVID WEDDLE | David Weddle is the author of " 'If They Move . . . Kill 'Em!' The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah" (Grove Press)

Saturday, Sept. 16, 1995, Ladera Park, Baldwin Hills, 9 a.m. -- The first day of rehearsals. Five tall, muscular black men, ranging in age from their middle 20s to early 30s, stand around on an asphalt court in torn T-shirts, gym shorts and high-top sneakers, shooting baskets. * "Larry Bird--that fool was overrated. Man, I hated all the Celtics." * "Hell, yeah. Especially that punk-ass Danny Ainge. I was glad when Ralph Sampson kicked his ass." * "That wasn't Ainge. That was the other no-game fool." * Rubber thunks on the asphalt, and the metallic reverberations of the backboard punctuate the conversation. The court is nestled among oak trees that scatter dry leaves across its faded white boundary lines. For more than 20 years, black men have gathered here on weekends to play ball and argue passionately over a wide range of topics, from the racial implications of the O.J. Simpson trial to speculations about the sexual talents of Tamara Dobson to who would win in a no-blows-barred battle between Bruce Lee and Mike Tyson.

But these five are not court regulars. They are a group of actors rehearsing a scene for a 12-minute USC student film, "Blacktop Lingo," by a 22-year-old director, Rick Famuyiwa. All five appear regularly in episodic television and on stage, but they have signed SAG waivers, agreeing to forgo any salary for a chance to portray characters who are not pimps or gangbangers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 11, 1997 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
In "The Path" (March 23), the 1986 tuition at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey was erroneously referred to as more than $5,000. The school charges $3,000 for Catholic students and $3,400 for non-Catholics.

Famuyiwa stands on the sidelines, observing the action with his eight-person crew, all of them undergraduate students in the USC Cinema-Television School's most advanced production course, known as "480." Directing a 480 is the pinnacle achievement that all USC cinema students aspire to. These much-coveted, 12-minute movies serve as the students' calling cards when they leave the university to seek work in Hollywood. Famuyiwa--6 feet, 4 inches tall, with broad and powerful shoulders--wears a black baseball cap turned backward, a red USC T-shirt and black sweat pants. He played for the USC basketball team before enrolling in the cinema school in his junior year; he grew up playing on courts like this one in and around Inglewood. Now he wants to capture this arena of black life on film.

In most Hollywood movies, streetball is depicted as a form of urban blight; the players are gangbangers and jive artists and the courts venues for drug dealing and random violence. But streetball offers a much richer social mix. "It's amazing, the different types of people who go there to play," says Famuyiwa. "When I first started, I'd see all these guys dressed all beat-up and I'd think: These are guys who just play and don't have any real goals in life. But then I talked to them and found out some were doctors, some lawyers, others blue-collar workers and some gangbangers. All of these people who wouldn't normally interact with each other coming together to play ball. There are very few places like that left in black communities. That's what I'm trying to capture with this movie."

"Blacktop Lingo" has no plot. Famuyiwa wants the movie to unfold like a jazz riff: a loose series of vignettes about the characters who congregate around a court in Inglewood's Rogers Park on a Saturday afternoon. (The more scenic Ladera Park fills in as the location.) Interwoven with the vignettes are balletic action sequences of the games--fast breaks, fake-outs, layups and dunk shots--in which the players strive to transcend the laws of physics and the stresses of their everyday lives.

Rick's parents, Idowu and Florence Famuyiwa, immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in 1970, then separated when he was 4 years old. Rick and his younger brother, Kevin, moved frequently--from Northern California to North Carolina to Los Angeles--as Florence pursued degrees in biology and medical technology and then secured a job as a laboratory technologist. She found life in the United States to be different than in Nigeria: there were great economic opportunities, but racism pervaded all levels of society. Black people had to work much harder to get ahead and to keep prejudice, both subtle and blatant, from warping their self-esteem.

When the family moved to Northern California so that Florence could obtain a degree in biology from Cal State Hayward, Rick enrolled in the third grade at Castlemont Elementary School. "I was one of four black students in an all-white school," he says. "I was really happy because I got into Miss Wilcox's class. Everybody wanted to be in her class; she was one of the most popular teachers in the school." When it came time to separate the students into reading groups--advanced, average and remedial--Wilcox put Rick into the slow group.

When he got home that afternoon, his mother asked: "How was your day?"

"Cool," he answered, handing her his new reader.

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